Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tommy's Take on Volant - Kingdoms of Air and Stone

Not really interested in yet *another* cookie cutter fantasy game? Well, clash bowley may just have a solution for that, with Volant: Kingdoms of Air and Stone.
Do flying cities and giant bird mounts interest you?

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Volant is available at RPGNow for $12.00. This review is of the PDF version, provided by the publisher for review purposes. Purchases made through the affiliate link I provided do provide this site with store credit at OneBookShelf.

That stuff out of the way, what IS Volant? Volant is a fantasy RPG set in a world after a magical catastrophe has sucked all the magic out of humanity and placed it into the stones, causing mountains to fly above the world. This is where the bulk of humanity now lives, traveling via giant birds and airships. Down on the blasted surface are the more primitive members of humanity, as well as the monsters moving across the surface. Magical effects as still possible, via Alchemy (as the opening fiction nearly explains in a nice and tidy piece).

Players of other games by clash will recognize a lot of what’s here on the structural level. For instance, the first thing you do is create the association your PCs belong to. They can be a religious sect, a group of assassins, treasure hunters, knights, military, mercenaries…whatever. Just as long as they belong to the same group, giving them a reason to share goals at the beginning of the game. The group has starting capital with which to purchase a headquarters, assets and so on, as is relevant to their association’s purpose.

Once the association is complete, then comes character generation. You pick a starting age, and the older you are, the more skills and experience you have…but as you get older, your attributes decrease. You have six attributes, assigned either an array of scores or determined by a pool of 45 points. PCs have a number of Template Points based off of their age to chart their professional development. The first two templates (Background and Apprenticeship) are free, the rest have point costs based on the benefits provided. You might have been a Street Rat who was taken in as an Apprentice Scholar. From there, they have become a budding Alchemist and so on. Each step gives skills and perks, based on your professional choices.
Several handy template tree charts are provided to guide one through the common career paths.

Characters are further defined by Traits, which are a mechanical definition of a character’s personality. If a trait is relevant to an action, you can use it to add points to your skill roll, while traits that would impact your action negatively can be used to gain points back. Edges are kind of like Traits, but not necessarily linked to personality.

Characters also gain Maneuvers, which are impressive tricks that they can utilize in gameplay, both in and out of combat. Shield Maneuvers let you stun the opponent with a quick shield strike. Sword maneuvers let you take small penalties on your attack roll, saving them up for one massive hit a few rounds later. Staff maneuvers allow you to do things like pole vault over the opponent for a free attack. Team maneuvers can let you apply “shock and awe” tactics to the opponent. You get the idea. While most of the maneuvers are combat-focused, there are a few social maneuvers as well. A lack of aerial-focused maneuvers seemed like an oversight, given the setting, though many of these maneuvers will be usable in the air as well as on the ground. I also couldn’t pin down whether or not a turn and a round are used interchangeably, but if not, then two of the pole fighting maneuvers have the issue of one being noticeably better than the other, for the same cost.

The StarCluster system has evolved in an interesting manner, as you can take the same basic stats and set-up, but choose your resolution mechanic from StarNova (the grittier option), StarZero (which produces more average results), StarPool (which has powered most of the StarCluster games I’ve reviewed) and StarWorm (which has more player negotiation, stake setting, that kind of thing). StarPool and StarWorm use d20 pools, while StarZero uses a d6-d6 (ala ICONS), and StarNova uses exploding d6s. With four different, varying, resolution mechanics, you have a lot of room to play around and find your comfort zone.
The equipment chapter has several tables for modifiers for weapon craftsmanship and materials which is neat…but doesn’t seem to have an impact other than cost. There is a section talking about station and how “clothes make the man”, so one can assume it also applies to weapons, but it does seem off to put that detail in there without any real follow-up.

The Alchemy section is simple but cool, with different ingredients giving you different Edges. This includes both plants (Cold Root giving you Ice and Cool Edges, or Lion Weed giving you Courage and Hope Edges) and Creatures (like Spider-Kin Venom giving Climb and Still Edges).

The Skylands creation chapter is similarly impressive, with lots of charts (with random roll distributions) to guide you in the creation of Skylands, from their government structure to the resources they produce and an optional set of charts to create a caste system if you choose.

Religion is also similarly defined by the GM. The game makes no assumptions regarding the number of deities or how they react to their followers.

Airships and birds are a big deal, each with their own creation section. My favorite of the two is the bird creation, as you can select their best senses, their reaction to aggression, their intelligence and so on. And, well, the idea of playing a guy riding around on a giant bird just sounds awesome to me.

With the Aerial Combat chapter, I think I can see why Aerial Maneuvers weren’t present earlier on, as there’s already a TON of options to keep track of, tactics-wise, when birds are fighting in the air. Generally, the riders are trying to get behind their opponents, and one need not necessarily kill their opponent or its mount, as birds face severe consequences from failing Vigor rolls in combat.

The chapter on the surface world follows the pattern of the rest of the book, giving you tools and options to create your surface world, rather than telling you just how it is. Wizard ruins on the surface often still have ambient energy that can warp and transform seeds or eggs, which some individuals will pay a pretty penny for.

There is no bestiary, per se, but there is another set of charts that one can use to construct their own.

The book does provide examples of character creation, monster creation, religion creation, nation creation, airship creation and so on. An aerial combat cheat sheet/picture guide and an index round out the book (although, oddly, the page numbers for the index are 1-6, despite being at the back of the book).

WHAT WORKS: I love the setting concept. I love the idea of playing an adventurer riding around on a giant bird. It’s just cool. I really appreciate all of the tools provided to make Volant your own, right down to the resolution mechanic used. All of the various examples at the back of the book are certainly appreciated, and the maneuvers are a cool feature to provide mechanical support for more versatile combat.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The extra cost tables on weapon creation just seem out of place because, unless I missed it, there is no real benefit to paying more for better quality weapons…so why would you? As much as I love tools and random charts, I do also like having ready-made material to work with, so I would have appreciated a larger bestiary.

CONCLUSION: This one “sings” to me more than clash’s other games do, because of the fantasy element over the alternate history element. That and it’s just overloaded with cool factor. Also, I can’t NOT love this many random charts in one book.  This is definitely not your average fantasy game. There’s no dwarves, elves, gnomes or halflings, or orcs, goblins and drow here. That said, if you’re wanting something you can just jump right into and run, that’s not going to work unless you’re adept at running with the random results. That’s not a knock on the game, just an observation. My favorite iteration of StarCluster yet.